Dame Diana Rigg: 'I'm having the time of my life'

Dame Diana Rigg is in her sixties, but she says she is getting the best parts of her career. On her return to the West End, she tells Paul Taylor she is in her prime
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The story of my encounter with Diana Rigg begins in disaster. The train bearing me from the Midlands to the projected interview with Dame Diana at a London hotel suddenly stopped, without any explanatory announcement, and basked motionless in the spring sun for very much longer than a little while. When it became hideously clear that I was not going to get to the interview on time, I became frantic in a manner that would have made Basil Fawlty look like the epitome of constitutional calm. You can hardly blame my fellow passengers for refusing when I badgered them to let me have use of their mobile phones, given that I was treating them to the exhibition of a probable maniac, yelling: "But you don't understand, I have to get through to DIANA RIGG!!!"

Not a few of these folk shifted away from me in their seats and adopted a wary/pitying expression that signalled: "Yeah, in your dreams, chum." Yet, even in the midst of the turmoil, I could tell that all the men of a certain age to whom I appealed were picturing Diana Rigg not as embodied in any of her recent great achievements - Medea, Mother Courage, Phèdre, Agrippina, Edward Albee's Martha - and certainly not in her mighty new role as Violet Venables, the redoubtable Southern matriarch and millionairess, bent on having lobotomised the troubled niece who knows the true story of her son's repulsive demise, in Michael Grandage's superb Sheffield revival of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer - a production that has been on tour and transfers next to the West End.

No, the mental image these commuters had of Diana Rigg dated back to the Sixties when, in the The Avengers, she played Emma Peel, the lusciously leather-clad, karate-chopping distaff side of a crime-busting duo who, with Patrick Macnee's fastidiously bowlered and besuited John Steed, dispatched professional assassins, cosmonauts and cannibalistic monsters to their doom before ritually toasting their success with a well-earned bottle of bubbly.

Call me an old highbrow, but rather than Emma Peel, it is Rigg's matchlessly witty and teasing Celimene - in Tony Harrison's brilliant update of Molière's The Misanthrope to the Paris of de Gaulle, staged at the National Theatre in 1973 - that remains my fantasy-mode view of the actress. High society and high camp, she dispensed drop-dead couplets - such as this one, about refusing to bar admirers: "They're sweet. They visit. What do you suggest?/ A mounted sentry, or an entrance test?" - with scintillatingly sexy and pert aplomb.

In fact, it became clear on my abortive first attempt to meet her that, underneath, I am a bit afraid of La Rigg. I fancy that if this actress wanted to tear a strip off a man, it would stay well and truly torn. And here I was wasting her time and, to boot, just before she had to race off to the Richmond Theatre, where Suddenly Last Summer had reached on its tour.

Cut to the following day. Though she is preparing to leave for France on the morrow and has to forfeit some of her rest period between the Saturday matinée and evening show, Rigg has graciously consented to receive me at 6pm. Rigg emerges like an apparition and is sweeping aside my blurted apologies

We adjourn to a nearby bar where, to my surprise and admiration in these puritan, Perrier-bibbing days, she asks for a pre-performance Campari and gets stuck into it. With her pepper-and-salt blonde bob, handsome cheekbones and amused, alert expression, she could pass for a good 15 years younger than the 65 she is pushing and for a good 20-odd years younger than the character of Mrs Violet Venables, as she is portraying her in this version of Suddenly Last Summer. In the 1959 movie adaptation (of which Tennessee Williams disapproved), Katharine Hepburn plays the dragon dowager as consciously younger than expected. "Perhaps you were expecting an old widow with a garnet brooch and a cane and a huge ear trumpet. (pause) I have that to look forward to," she says to the doctor, Montgomery Clift, as she takes him to see her late son Sebastian's primitive jungle of a New Orleans garden, its writhing, insectivorous plants evoked so graphically in the new stage production by Christopher Oram's steamy and monumental set.

Testifying to the director Michael Grandage's praise that Rigg does not give a damn about how she looks in her search for the truth of the character, the actress plays Mrs Venables as very elderly, propped up on a stick and with a white wig. "It helps that I look like my mother in this," Rigg says. "My mother would have had grey hair, tinted blue." (It was to her mother that the task fell of replying to all those febrile letters from fans in the days of Emma Peel, offering the writers sensible advice such "go for a run" or "take a cold shower".)

With a growly Southern accent, a rascally cackle and a stabbing forefinger, Rigg's Mrs Venables is not de haut en bas like Hepburn, who keeps descending like a destructive force in a personal lift. Instead, Rigg incarnates her as a game old bird, but a game old bird of prey, buoyed up by a terrific malign energy. "She worships at the altar of [the dead Sebastian's] creativity," Rigg explains. He wrote a poem a year, and mother and son travelled round the world together like a celebrated married couple, until suddenly, "last summer", he took his troubled cousin Catharine (played by Victoria Hamilton) instead. It was she who witnessed the cataclysmic end to an unjudging, amoral existence of homoerotic sex tourism, as Sebastian was hounded and cannibalistically consumed by the deprived North African youths whose favours he had bought. "I procured for him and so did Catharine," says Rigg, who - apart from being temperamentally drawn to Tennessee Williams - says that she is fascinated by what I described as the curious baton change in the play - when the older actress playing the mother has to cede the centre of attention to the younger actress playing the witness she wishes to silence surgically.

"Yes, it is like a baton change. Or like a pair of scales. The balance is incredibly important. If the first half doesn't work, the second half won't work. Mrs Venables has to set it up. She says that Catharine's truth will collapse, not my truth." But the play comes down on the niece's side, aesthetically (you could argue) as well as morally. Rigg is very acute about "the fascinatingly complex relationship between the mother and the son. He needed her to be with him in order to subscribe to her distorted view of him, and on the trip without her, he suddenly found himself playing it to excess..."

Tortured mother-son relationships have been a recurring feature of Rigg's work since she made her spectacular and multi-award-winning return to the theatre in the 1990s. For the Almeida, in a West End residency at the Albery Theatre, she played a season which, at the time, I argued, could be called Some Sons Do 'Ave 'Em. As Phèdre, the mother taboo-breakingly besotted by her stepson, she deployed one of her great gifts, which is the ability to convey the sense of someone simultaneously undergoing a strong emotion and offering a scathingly detached commentary on it. When she received the news that the youth was not after all a doctrinal virgin but had fallen for a younger woman, she graduated her response beautifully. At first she mulled over the information with a ghastly little smile, like someone getting the measure of a sick joke. Only then did she launch into a frantic fever of jealousy.

Also with Toby Stephens (the real-life son of Dame Maggie Smith), Rigg played a lethally sophisticated Agrippina to his Nero in a concurrent production of Britannicus, where her lofty derision and brazen shifts into maternal possessiveness demonstrated the value of high-comedy skills in queasy intellectual tragedy. Mother Love on the television, meanwhile, showed her as an Oedipally fixated mum, while Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy with Simon Russell Beale at the National had her, conversely, fixating her disaster-area of a son with the glittering cool of her neglect.

In the Seventies, she starred in several productions (The Misanthrope; Pygmalion; Phaedra Britannica) by John Dexter, the great director and acid-tongued bully who once said to Arnold Wesker: "Arnold, if you don't shut up, I'll direct this play as you wrote it." To Rigg, he famously remarked: "Miss Rigg, you are about as vulnerable as the north face of the Eiger."

I mention that a couple of years before Dexter died in 1990, I had the privilege of interviewing him and that we got on. "Yes, well," she replied, giving me an appraising stare, "you are quite camp, so I guess that he could see the point of you."

I say I expect he liked Rigg's ability to stand up to him. "We were both from the north," she says. "We cut to the quick and didn't take any rubbish. And besides, there's the fact that he did love me." The northernness (Rigg was born in Doncaster in 1938) is, I think, important. The late critic Jack Tinker (himself a Northerner) likened Rigg's performance as Mother Courage at the National in 1995 to "some 17th-century Vera Duckworth" in its jaw-jutting, headscarf-swathed, flat-vowelled prowess. And, as a great fan of Coronation Street, he meant it, rightly, as a huge compliment.

This point is amplified by Jonathan Kent, the man for whom she played that astonishing sequence of roles in the Nineties that included a Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf whom I described at the time as "a ball-breaking monstre sacré who, you feel, might pop you into her Bloody Mary and call the result breakfast. The terrifying cross in her between the Oedipally prurient 'give Mommy a big kiss' earth-mother and the emasculating tart has never been done better."

As well as being a Northerner, Kent observes that Rigg was, in some sense, a deracinated figure. When she was two months old, her family moved to Jodhpur in north-west India, where her engineer father became manager of the state railroads. It was not until she was eight that she was sent back to England to boarding school. "There's something of the outsider about Diana. She's not quite in the mainstream, like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. And she never ingratiates herself with an audience. There's an honourable solitude and privacy about her."

There's also a likeable streak of independent-mindedness and rebellion that can be dated back to those early days. The young Rigg eventually fetched up at Fulneck Girls' School in Pudsey, Yorkshire where, she recalls, "classes were incredibly boring. I took to dreaming. They took to punishing me. I was always working off punishments for not doing what I was supposed to do." Help came in the shape of a sympathetic teacher, Miss Sylvia Greenwood, and the grandfather whom she visited during the holidays. The one encouraged her interest in drama, the other her love of TS Eliot and Shakespeare.

Rigg's rebellious tendencies were not, it seems, exhausted by school. She found the Rada of the 1950s (at where she was accepted when she was 17) overly restrictive. "[The place] was too rarefied. It had nothing to do with real life. As a matter of fact, I very nearly got kicked out because I was having a dose of real life on the outside." A five-year contract with the RSC began in 1959, where her roles included a Helena for Peter Hall in A Midsummer Night's Dream (later filmed) and Cordelia to Paul Scofield's King in Peter Brook's legendary Beckettian vision of King Lear. At the end of her contract, for a wheeze, she auditioned for the role of Emma Peel, never having seen The Avengers. Dressed in the stipulated black slacks and polo necks, the hopefuls looked, she quips, like "an army of junior Nazis".

When I ask about the different career patterns for actresses of her generation and those of her daughter's, she says that "these days it's perfectly normal to move between the theatre and television", but back then she was pioneering the trend in the teeth of theatre folk who said she was wasting her talent, and television executives who did not know how to cope with an actress who was not only beautiful but outspoken, and prepared to threaten to leave when she discovered, after 12 episodes, that the cameraman was earning more than she was. "I made a bit of a stink. At the time, it was considered very bad form." I wonder if beauty is a burden for a really serious actress - many of the most successful in theatre are jolie laide. "They do say that the profession gets increasingly difficult, but my career seems to have been inside out. I'm playing the biggest parts now that I'm older. That's probably right, because I wasn't ready for them before."

The actress's frankness is not a put-on but, Kent maintains, "she uses candour as a camouflage to preserve her privacy." Thus far, and no farther. I bring up with Kent those people who have a "Diana Rigg problem" and who claim not to be able to see the truth of the performance for the technique. "She has a directness of approach," he says, "that might be construed by some as being unmined". Not by Kent, or myself. "Ted Hughes [who translated the Phèdre in which she starred] thought she was spectacular and he was famously no pushover. Her ability to handle the language was astonishing. This was not just Racine, it was Ted Hughes's Racine" - violently visceral ("My face feels to be coming apart/ With all the turmoil", reported the heroine).

Meanwhile, Rigg says that she is enjoying working with much younger talent (the director Michael Grandage and her co-star Victoria Hamilton) and that "maybe at this stage in my career, it's from that generation that I have most to learn". Hamilton worked with her before on a six-week shoot on the television film Victoria and Albert, in which she played the Queen and Rigg played her nanny. Apparently, they drank lots of wine and had a good laugh whenever outdoor filming was rained off.

Certainly, I can vouch for the magnanimity of the Dame. Despite my having let her down the previous day, she remains exceptionally concentrated and I have to remind her of the time and of the need to get back to the theatre - where, on the strength of her name, people are queuing round the block for returns .

If Rigg's stage career went into mild abeyance in the Eighties, it was because she consciously put family before career (her daughter is the talented young actress Rachael Stirling, who made a splash in Andrew Davies's lesbian costume drama Tipping the Velvet). She has maintained that "if it were said that I didn't fulfil my potential as a mother and wife, I'd be heartbroken. But if it were said that I hadn't fulfilled my potential as an actress, I would understand the reasons why." She is being overly modest. On the evidence of Suddenly Last Summer, this icon of the Sixties is, in her own sixties, still developing her potential as an actress very interestingly indeed.

'Suddenly Last Summer' previews at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6621) from 6 May

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